International Cospas-Sarsat Programme

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme is a satellite-based search and rescue (SAR) distress alert detection and information distribution system, best known for detecting and locating emergency beacons activated by aircraft, ships and backcountry hikers in distress.

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme (the Programme) began as a joint effort of Canada, France, the United States, and the former Soviet Union in 1979.  It was formally constituted as an intergovernmental organisation in 1988 through the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement (the Agreement or ICSPA) signed by the four “Parties” to the Agreement: Canada, France, the USA and the former USSR.  The Russian Federation replaced the USSR as Party to the Agreement in January 1992.

Including the four Parties to the Agreement, 40 States and 2 organisations (the Participants) are now currently formally associated with the Programme and actively participate in the management and the operation of the Cospas-Sarsat System (the System). 

The mission of the Programme is to provide accurate, timely and reliable distress alert and location data to help Search and Rescue (SAR) authorities assist persons in distress. The objective of the Cospas-Sarsat System is to reduce, as far as possible, delays in the provision of distress alerts to SAR services, and the time required to locate a person in distress at sea or on land and provide assistance to that person, all of which have a direct impact on the probability of survival. To achieve this objective, Cospas-Sarsat Participants implement, maintain, co-ordinate and operate a satellite system capable of detecting distress alert transmissions from radio beacons that comply with Cospas-Sarsat specifications and performance standards, and of determining their position anywhere on the globe. The distress alert and location data is provided by Cospas-Sarsat Participants to the responsible SAR services.

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement (ICSPA) stipulates that the languages of the Council are English, French and Russian. 

  

  • The System
  • History of Cospas-Sarsat
  • Programme Agreement
  • Programme Management
  • How to Join the Programme
  • Funding of the Programme

The System is available to maritime and aviation users and to persons in distress situations. Access is provided to all States on a non-discriminatory basis, and is free of charge for the end-user in distress. On average, about 5 persons are rescued every day with the assistance of Cospas-Sarsat alert and location data.

The System is composed of: 

-     distress beacons operating at 406 MHz;
-     SAR payloads on satellites in low-altitude Earth orbit and in geostationary orbit;
-     ground receiving stations (LUTs) spread around the world; and
-     a network of Mission Control Centres (MCCs) to distribute distress alert and location information to SAR authorities, worldwide.

 

Read more on the history of Cospas-Sarsat in the Special Issue - 30th Anniversary of the Cospas-Sarsat Information Bulletin available under the "System Documents" section of our Professional website labelled as document IB-22 Special within the Information Bulletin sub-section.

This satellite system was initially developed under a Memorandum of Understanding among Agencies of the former USSR, USA, Canada and France, signed in 1979.

Following the successful completion of the demonstration and evaluation phase started in September 1982, a second Memorandum of Understanding was signed on 5 October 1984 by the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) of France, the Department of National Defence (DND) of Canada, the Ministry of Merchant Marine (MORFLOT) of the former USSR and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the USA. The System was then declared operational in 1985.

On 1 July 1988, the four States providing the space segment signed the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement which ensures the continuity of the System and its availability to all States on a non-discriminatory basis. In January 1992, the Government of Russia assumed responsibility for the obligations of the former Soviet Union. A number of States, Non-Parties to the Agreement, have also associated themselves with the Programme.

Through their association with the Programme, the States can contribute ground receiving stations which enhance Cospas-Sarsat distress alerting capabilities, and/or participate in international Cospas-Sarsat meetings dedicated to the world-wide co-ordination of System operations and Programme management.

The detailed status of Participants, Satellites and ground segment equipment is provided in the "System Data" document. Recent developments in the Cospas-Sarsat Programme are described in the "Information Bulletin".

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement between Canada, France, the former USSR and the USA (document C/S P.001) was signed in Paris on 1 July 1988 and entered into force on 30 August 1988. The Agreement is open for accession by other States wishing to provide space segment capabilities. It also allows for the use of the System by all States on a long-term non-discriminatory basis.  The Programme Agreement is available under the "System Documents" section of our website.

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement establishes a Council and a Secretariat. The Council oversees the implementation of the Agreement and co-ordinates the activities of the Parties. The Secretariat, the permanent administrative organ of the Programme, takes direction from the Council and assists the Council in the implementation of its functions. The Council has established a subsidiary organ, the Cospas-Sarsat Joint Committee, which is composed of an Operations Working Group (OWG) and a Technical Working Group (TWG).

States non-Party to the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement can participate in the System by notifying one of the Depositaries of the Agreement (the Secretary-General of International Maritime Organization or the Secretary General of International Civil Aviation Organization) of their association with the Programme either as Ground Segment Providers or as User-States. Ground Segment Providers and User-States are invited to participate in Cospas-Sarsat Programme meetings.

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement (ICSPA), which states the responsibilities of the Parties to the ICSPA, establishes two organs: the Council and the Secretariat.

Subsidiary Organs

The Council may establish subsidiary organs as required for the implementation of the Agreement (ICSPA).  The Council established the Cospas-Sarsat Joint Committee who meets at least once a year. The Joint Committee comprises two Working Groups:

  • the Operations Working Group (OWG)
  • the Technical Working Group (TWG)

The Joint Committee addresses all technical and operational matters of interest to the Programme, as directed by the Council.  The Joint Committee prepares the System documents (standards and specifications) and recommendations for approval by the Council.  The Council, upon recommendation by the Joint Committee, may also decide to establish Task Groups (TG) or Experts’ Working Groups (EWG) to address specific issues and prepare documents for review by to the Joint Committee and submission to the Council for approval.

The reports of Task Groups and Experts’ Working Group meetings are submitted to the Joint Committee for consideration and comment. These reports are also submitted for consideration at the subsequent Open Meeting of the Council.  

Languages of the Programme

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement (ICSPA) stipulates that the languages of the Council are English, French and Russian.  Simultaneous translation to and from the three languages of the Programme is provided at Council meetings. 

Meetings of subsidiary organs will normally be held in the English language only, with no interpretation.

The Cospas-Sarsat Programme Management Policy (document C/S P.011) is available under the "System Documents" section of our Professional website.



The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme was established under the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement signed in Paris on 1 July 1988 by Canada France, the USSR (since replaced by the Russian Federation) and the United States of America.  This Agreement provides for the association of non-Party States with the Programme.

43 nations and organizations are currently associated with Cospas-Sarsat.  If a country is not formally associated as a Participant in Cospas-Sarsat, a Search and Rescue Point of Contact (SPOC) in that country is supported by a Cospas-Sarsat Mission Control Centre (MCC). The list of SPOCs and associated supporting MCCs is available in the "Contact Lists" section of our Professonial website. This means that 406 MHz distress alerts detected anywhere in the world are routed through the Cospas-Sarsat MCC network to the appropriate search and rescue authorities.

To achieve maximum benefit from the Cospas-Sarsat System, all countries should establish:

  • reliable communication links with the supporting MCC, including providing the full address/email/telephone/fax contact information for the Search and Rescue Point of Contact (SPOC),
  • appropriate regulations for the use of 406 MHz beacons within the country, and
  • a beacon register with a 24-hour point of contact for ELTs, EPIRBs and PLBs, or authorizing use of the International Beacon Registration Database (IBRD, available at www.406registration.com).


Alternatively, a country may wish to establish itself as a Cospas-Sarsat Ground Segment Provider and receive and process alert data directly from the Cospas-Sarsat satellites. To accomplish this, a ground receiving station (LUT) and Mission Control Centre (MCC) may be purchased and installed. The Cospas-Sarsat Secretariat itself does not operate, procure or sell any equipment.

A government representative may obtain information on LUT and MCC installation and associated costs directly from the manufacturers of Cospas-Sarsat Ground Segment equipment. Because of the high level of investment required to develop and produce the Cospas-Sarsat LUTs/MCCs, only a limited number of manufacturers have produced, sold and installed equipment that has been commissioned into the Cospas-Sarsat Ground Segment. The list of manufacturers of ground segment equipment that has been commissioned into the Cospas-Sarsat system can be found in the "Contact Lists" section of our Professional website.  The Secretariat cannot provide information on costs or performance of equipment.

A third option would be for a country to formally associate with Cospas-Sarsat as a User State. The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement provides for the association with Cospas-Sarsat of States that did not sign the original 1988 Agreement. Such association is welcomed by the Cospas-Sarsat Parties and is considered mutually beneficial. A User State is not required to purchase and operate ground station equipment (406 MHz distress alerts would continue to be delivered via the supporting MCC), but can attend Cospas-Sarsat Meetings and participate in the management of the Cospas-Sarsat System.  Procedures for the notification of non-party states' association with the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme are detailed in document C/S P.002.

General guidelines for participating in the Cospas-Sarsat System are provided in document C/S P.007.   The association of a State with the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme as a Ground Segment Provider or as a User State is accomplished via a formal procedure of notification to the Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) or to the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). 

Please note that states that choose to formally associate themselves with the Cospas-Sarsat Programme are requested to contribute an annual fee towards the administrative costs of the Programme. This fee is currently CAN$ 42,000 per annum.  There are no fees for the use of the Cospas-Sarsat Space Segment or the receipt of Cospas-Sarsat alerts.

Cospas-Sarsat P.000 Series - Programme type document are available under our "System Documents" section of our Professional website.

The basic principle is that each Participant in the Programme is responsible for all costs associated with its own participation, including the procurement, installation and operation of Ground Segment equipment which they contribute to the System, and the procurement, launch and operation of satellite equipment constituting the Cospas-Sarsat Space Segment.  Therefore, there are no exchanges of funds among Participants for implementing the activities pertaining to the Programme.  The only exception concerns the international coordination and administration of activities of the Programme, which entails costs shared amongst all Participants.

Common Costs are associated with the organisation, administration and coordination of the Programme, including those costs incurred in financing the activities of the Council and the Secretariat. They do not include any expenses incurred for the reception and transmission of distress alert data or to perform search and rescue operations.  

The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Common Costs are funded exclusively by contributions of the governments of the Parties to the ICSPA and the countries and organisations associated with the Programme (the Participants).  All States and organisations that have formally notified their association with the Programme pay an annual standard fee determined by the Council as their contribution towards the Common Costs of the Programme.

You may access our Programme Management Policy, document C/S P.011, which is available under the "Systems Documents" section of our Professional website.